Caught in a political storm over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, billionaire Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group Sunday denied receiving any contract from the Defence Ministry and said “unfounded and incorrect” allegations are being deliberately made to “mislead people and cloud the issue.”
Answering questions ranging from lack experience to state-owned HAL being overlooked for the deal, the group said Dassault, the French firm that is to supply 36 Rafale fighter jets, choose Reliance Defence Ltd to meet its ‘offset’ or export obligation in the contract and the Ministry of Defence has no role in the selection of Indian partners by the foreign vendors.
Reliance Defence Ltd CEO Rajesh Dhingra said the government-to-government deal requires all 36 aircraft to be delivered in a ‘fly-away’ condition which means “they are to be exported from France by Dassault” and “HAL or anyone else cannot be the production agency for the simple reason that no aircraft are to be produced in India.”
He said HAL was a nominated production agency for the 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program, which never reached the contract stage.
“Reliance Defence or any other Reliance group company has not received any contract from the MoD till date, related to 36 Rafale aircraft. This is absolutely unfounded and incorrect,” he told PTI over the phone.
Opposition Congress party last week demanded a JPC in the deal and its president Rahul Gandhi has been attacking the government for inking the deal at a much higher price than the one the previous UPA regime had negotiated. He has accused the government of changing the deal to benefit “one businessman”.
On allegations of the firm getting the contract because of Ambani’s reported proximity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said: “As per Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), the Ministry of Defence has no role in the selection of Indian partners by the foreign vendors. This has been the position right from 2005 when offsets were first introduced in the country.”
In the more than 50 offset (export obligations) contracts signed in the country till date, the same process has been followed, he said. “Therefore, this is a deliberate attempt to mislead people and cloud the issue.”
On the issue lack of experience in making fighter aircraft, Dhingra said no company in India, except HAL, has the experience of making fighter planes. “This would mean that we will never create any new capability beyond what exists and will continue to import more than 70 per cent of our defence hardware,” he said.
Dhingra added that Reliance will be participating in the offset program through Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) in which Dassault holds a 49 per cent stake bringing in its 90 years of aerospace manufacturing experience, making it the “most qualified vendor”. He termed as “absolutely wrong” allegation of Reliance benefiting with a Rs 30,000 crore contract, saying “Dassault’s share of offsets is about 25 per cent, with the remaining offset obligations being shared by Thales, Safran, MBDA and others.”
“Therefore, the basic premise of Dassault giving Rs 30,000 crore worth of offset contracts to Reliance is totally unfounded,” he said, adding Dassault and its other Tier-I suppliers have already indicated more than 100 Indian companies which will participate in the offset contracts. This includes joint ventures with PSUs like HAL and BEL.
“We can also not lose sight of the fact that up to 30 per cent of total offsets can be discharged through the transfer of technology to DRDO, as per DPP,” he said.
Asked about Reliance Defence being incorporated days before the announcement of the Rafale deal, he said three companies were incorporated in December 2014 and Reliance Group’s entry into defence sector was announced at Aero India in February 2015. “Also there are reports in the media of as late as end-March 2015 where Dassault officials were on record to say that the MMRCA deal is 95 per cent done. If this is correct, what is the linkage with the date of incorporation of Reliance Defence?” he asked.
The deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets was signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France in April 2015.
On the question of the presence of Ambani at the time of the announcement of the deal by the Prime Minister, Dhingra said Anil Ambani is part of the CEOs’ Forum for France and also many other countries. “He was in Paris because there was a meeting of the CEOs’ Forum on the sidelines of the Prime Minister’s visit. More than 25 other CEOs from the Indian companies were also present, including the Chairman of HAL,” he said.
Offset obligations are to be discharged during September 2019 to September 2023, as per the contract.
Asked about allegations that Reliance actually got contracts worth Rs 1.3 lakh crore and not Rs 30,000 crore, he said the amount may be coming from projections of Rs 30,000 crore for offsets and another Rs 100,000 crore towards the lifecycle cost over 50 years. “There cannot be anything further from the truth… To the best of my knowledge, the government has not signed any lifecycle contract for 50 years with Dassault. Therefore, the very question of Reliance getting a contract does not arise,” he said.
On the issue of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman denying knowledge of the contract, he said as per DPP 2016, the foreign vendor has a choice to submit the details of its offset partners at the time of claiming offset credits. “In this case, offset obligations are due only after September 2019. It is, therefore, possible that the Ministry of Defence has no formal communication from Dassault Aviation about the choice of its partners for the offsets,” he said.
Asked if it was correct that under DPP a joint secretary-level official is required to countersign the contract, he said: “The offset contract is signed between the MoD and the foreign vendor. MoD does not sign any contract with the Indian offset partners.”